By Ron Gilbert
The academic year is drawing to a close, and students across Alabama are crossing their fingers that those final report cards turn out the way they hope. But another report card was issued this month, and Alabama didn’t fare too well. In fact, of the 50 states ranked in a new Economic Security Scorecard, Alabama came in dead last with a score of D+. Although Mississippi, Tennessee and Utah tied us for that D+, their cumulative scores on the 80 public policies earned them a higher ranking.
The scorecard, produced by the national research and advocacy organization Wider Opportunities for Women, is the first report that grades state policies on how well they promote the financial well-being of its residents, from preschoolers to workers and retirees. The Scorecard accounts for the basic elements of any family’s economic security: income, job quality, education and training, public supports, and savings and asset building.
The Scorecard finds that while politicians may say that economic recovery is their priority, lawmakers in Montgomery are far from having a strategy to promote economic security for families. Alabama earned a grade of F for failing to have a state minimum wage law, for failing to provide earned income tax credits for low income working families, for failing to invest in our Housing Trust Fund to create housing opportunities to low income and vulnerable populations, and for failing to provide child and dependent care tax credits for working families. We fared better in some areas – earning A’s in health coverage for low income children and for the elimination of asset tests for basic programs.
Among the fastest growing industries in Alabama’s economy are home health care, food service and retail. With average hourly wages of around $10, working families are left with the nearly impossible task of meeting increasing costs for housing and quality child care. The growth of low-wage jobs is also compounded by three decades of stagnant wages, funding cuts to education and public supports and sky-high growth in the costs of basic living expenses.
No wonder middle class families feel like the floor is crumbling beneath them. Our state and our economy can’t move forward if Alabama families are unable to afford safe housing and transportation, weather a period of unemployment or health emergencies, or save for their or their children’s futures.
Alabamians and our leaders have the choice and the power to make different decisions to build a different economy. Government incentives can be a great tool to encourage investments in Alabama, but without concurrent investments in our people we run a risk of always playing catch up, and always being at the bottom of rankings. The true engine of economic growth is an inclusive and rising middle class. We need public policies that support the middle class, and those that encourage the accumulation of wealth rather than allowing it to be stripped away by predatory lending practices. We need a tax structure that doesn’t continue to place the heaviest burden on those who have the least. We need to invest in programs that encourage and allow full participation in the workforce.
We use to say “thank God for Mississippi,” assuming that as poorly as we did, our neighbors to the west did worse. We no longer can say that – but we don’t always have to be dead last in how we treat our fellow citizens. A state that focuses on offering opportunities and hope to its people will reap the benefits of such decisions, and in doing that, we will have report card that we can be proud of.
Ron Gilbert ([email protected]) is the Executive Director the Community Action Association of Alabama, a network of local, non-profit organizations that have worked for almost 50 years to address issues of poverty in their communities and to provide low and moderate-income Alabamians and their families opportunities for economic stability. Go to http://www.wowsonline.org/the-economic-security-scorecard/